More isn’t always better: Job picture brightens, but still complicated by underemployment

June 19, 2013

June 14, 2013 | Filed under: Focus,Photo,Print | Posted by: Tags:,

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All the experts agree: Jobs are returning to Colorado Springs.

They also agree that it’s going to be a long, slow slog back to the days of peak levels of employment.

El Paso County has added about 4,200 jobs in the past year — that’s pretty good news, says Tom Zwirlein, professor of finance at UCCS and director of the Southern Colorado Economic Forum.

But the local area is still 15,000 jobs short of its employment high in September 2007, the start of the Great Recession.

“And it’s not close to the number of jobs needed to keep up with population growth,” Zwirlein said. “So the employment picture isn’t super-strong.”

Currently, unemployment in the Springs is 8.1 percent, down from 9.2 percent in April 2012. That 9.2 figure prompted Mayor Steve Bach to announce an initiative to create 6,000 jobs a year for three years, bringing the city’s unemployment level to 5 percent, roughly where it was in 2007. Bach declined to comment for this article.

The good news is that the labor force and new jobs are both increasing, Zwirlein said. The strongest sectors are health care and construction, he said.

“Clearly, the lease of Memorial Hospital was a great economic factor,” he said, adding, “1,300 of the new jobs in 2012 were in health care.”

And the labor market got another boost this week, when the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance announced that Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s health insurance exchange, would hire 100 people in the Springs for customer service jobs.

Joe Raso, president and CEO at the Business Alliance, says his office is seeing “good activity” on economic projects.

“All said, I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said.

New jobs don’t always equal old jobs

But while there are bright spots in the labor force, employment specialists say that the new jobs aren’t the same as positions that disappeared in 2008-2010, during what’s now known as the second-biggest downturn in the nation’s economy.

Instead, people are adjusting to a different kind of job profile — positions at call centers, service jobs, retail jobs. Those positions frequently pay less than the jobs that disappeared in the recession. It’s true all over the state.

According to the National Priorities Project, 15.1 percent of the state’s residents are underemployed, working part-time or in jobs that don’t pay the same as former positions.

“The first thing we tell people is to lower their expectations,” said Dana Barton, business relations and employment development director at Pikes Peak Workforce Center. “The longer they’ve been out of the workforce, the more atrophy they have in their skill sets.

“We tell them that any work is beneficial — day to day, getting up, going to work, interacting with co-workers. That’s beneficial, even if it isn’t the same type of job they had before.”

Sometimes, that route pays off, she says.

“They have to get their foot in the door,” Barton said. “And if they were mid-level management before, people will see their skills and value them. There’s the chance to move up.”

Kelly Shaffer, vice president and COO at Add Staff, says the company has seen more people interested in working temporary positions.

“Add Staff is certainly seen as a bridge between jobs,” he said. “Some of them are, of course, underemployed. We’re certainly seeing permanent hires picking up bit by bit; so have the direct hires.”

Add Staff provides not only temporary employees, but temporary-to-hire workers, as well as direct hires.

“We’re seeing more employees start as temporary, but getting hired full-time,” he said. “It’s a good barometer of the workforce. Companies want to see how an employee will work out before adding them to the payroll — sort of a test drive.”

Shaffer acknowledges that some high-level, high-paying jobs have left the area for good. The ones replacing them — call center positions at United Healthcare, for example — don’t pay as much.

“People are having a hard time finding employment at the same level,” Shaffer said. Those mid-level jobs are much scarcer.”

And Raso noted that there are significant external factors that could affect future labor markets: sequestration, workforce development, community infrastructure development.

He said the local market struggles with a “public relations perception.”

“We are a region with so many great things happening across the arts, entertainment, business, health care, sports, etc.,” he said, “and yet that is not the image perceived by many of those within and outside our market.”

Legislative advocacy is another major issue, he said.

“The recent legislative session was not helpful in keeping Colorado viewed as a top state for business,” Raso said.

“Issues, such as the job protection civil rights enforcement act, family care act, collective bargaining and continued challenges with Amendment 64 all add challenges to our business community in retaining and growing their workforce in the region and being cost-competitive.”

Hoping for a chance

Despite current challenges, more people are getting jobs, even if many are entry-level positions.

Both Shaffer and Barton believe that once employees get started, there’s the opportunity to move up. But UCCS anthropologist Linda Watts says out-of-work people in the Springs are beginning to lose hope.

“Once they’ve been out of work for a year, they start to blame themselves,” Watts said. “Somehow, it’s not the economy, not the boss’s fault. Being unemployed becomes their fault — and they start to lose hope.”

Watts recently prepared a study about the anthropological effects of long-term unemployment or underemployment — how it affects stress levels and creates feelings of alienation.

“We heard just a general sense of hopelessness, particularly among those who were unemployed or underemployed for 18 months or more,” she said. “One man said he just needed the opportunity to show what he could do — just a foot in the door.”

Watts said many people depend on their jobs as the main source of their identity, and being without a paying job for so long leaves them foundering.

“They really are on the edge of society; they really feel alienated,” she said. “And some of them, after being out of work for so long, are facing homelessness. And it’s hard to be more invisible than that.

“It’s like long-term grief. There’s no acceptance; there’s only hopelessness.”

Barton sees the same problems as she tries to place people in positions.

“We see some push-back,” she said. “People really define themselves by their jobs. And once you’ve made it so far up the corporate ladder, it’s hard to accept an entry-level position.”

But Watts said not everyone feels that way. A small minority actually gets energized by long-term unemployment.

“They start hobbies, go back to school, start their own businesses,” she said. “For a handful of people, long-term unemployment — or underemployment — gives them time to explore and open up. That’s what’s interesting to me. They have new hope. They’re blazing new paths.”

But for most people, there are heavy emotional costs to finding themselves underemployed.

“We might be losing a whole generation,” Watts said. “There are going to be serious social costs as the economy recovers.”

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